Cover Story

Let the Romance Linger

Nalini R Mohanty is director, Jagran Institute of Management & Mass Communication, Noida. He was elected president of JNU Students’ Union in 1982-3 on a Students for Democratic Socialism platform
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Nalini R Mohanty recalls a time when every 24 hours seemed to send the pulse of JNU racing to a revolutionary precipice 

When the Editor of Open asked me to write a piece on the ‘Romance of the Left in JNU’ (he said I was the right person as I had had a ringside view of JNU politics in its early years), he had a specific suggestion for me to reflect on—has the charm of Che Guevera in the 1970s degraded into a mawkish ode to Afzal Guru, half a century down the line? 

I had two issues: first, I am not sure if either Che Guevera ever was or Afzal Guru is now central to the Left deliberations in JNU politics. Second, having been a president of the JNU Students’ Union elected in 1982 on a platform that defeated the traditional Left on the campus, my account would certainly be biased. I am sure that I would not be able to expunge my ideological baggage with a certain air of detachment even after all these years. 

I will try and make an assessment of the Left Movement in JNU as seen by someone who believed in the tenets of democratic socialism and who tried to make a small beginning of it in the university but who was roundly defeated by the inability to distinguish between what could be accomplished and what could not. 

My journey in JNU began in the tumultuous days of the post-Emergency era. Sitaram Yechury was president of the Students’ Union and excesses committed on the campus by university officials during the Emergency period were being hotly debated. I had come from Berhampur, a small town in southern Orissa where the Left’s student organisations (AISF and SFI) were the strongest. But many of those so-called leftist student activists were hardened criminals. 

In JNU, I found a completely different environment. Here the same student organisations were spearheading a democratic student movement based on debate and discussion. I was witness to general body meetings (GBMs) that went on till 3 am to deliberate on issues raised by the Students’ Council. 

In my initial days, I came to realise that there was nothing peculiar about the students who joined these Left groups: they came from all regions and all class backgrounds; they had all sorts of motives for becoming members (a majority of the smartest girls on campus were members of the SFI); they differed greatly in their commitment to the cause that their organisation stood for. 

Like most freshers, I too was assiduously wooed by the redoubtable Dilip Upadhyay, then the most popular SFI leader in the School of Social Sciences. He set up several meetings with Yechury, the top leader on the campus. But given my bitter experience with Left groups back home, I chose to bide time. 

When the Students’ Union elections came, I was witness to the full flow of JNU democracy. Election commissioners were elected from among the students, with absolutely no role of any teacher or administrator in the process. Post-dinner election meetings were the biggest draw. Yechury was the presidential candidate again, but the star attraction was DP Tripathi, who was president of the JNUSU during the Emergency and who had spent 19 months in jail. Yechury was rather sedate, matter-of-fact and logical in his speeches; But DPT (as Tripathi was popularly known) kept the audience spellbound with his rhetoric for endless hours (I remember returning to my room from one such meeting at 5 am after being glued to a three-hour-long harangue by him). Decidedly, DPT was the most powerful defender of Stalinism on a JNU platform. 

There was no comparable figure in the Free Thinkers, a campus-based organisation, which was the voice of liberal scepticism. Anand Kumar, who was president of the BHU Students’ union on a Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha ticket, was instrumental in the formation of the Free Thinkers in JNU in 1972 to take on the might of the established Left. He was defeated by the formidable Prakash Karat of the SFI in the 1973 election, but he had his revenge next year when both contested election again and Kumar trounced Karat. But midway in his tenure as president of the JNUSU, Kumar went abroad for higher studies on a fellowship; that left Free Thinkers in a disarray for quite some time and the established Left groups bounced back. 

The situation changed dramatically in 1980 when Jairus Banaji, who had registered for an MPhil in History with Bipan Chandra as his guide, appeared on the politi

My journey in JNU began in the tumultuous days of the post-Emergency era. Sitaram Yechury was president of the Students’ Union and excesses committed on the campus by university officials during the Emergency period were being hotly debated. I had come from Berhampur, a small town in southern Orissa where the Left’s student organisations (AISF and SFI) were the strongest. But many of those so-called leftist student activists were hardened criminals.

In JNU, I found a completely different environment. Here the same student organisations were spearheading a democratic student movement based on debate and discussion.

I was witness to general body meetings (GBMs) that went on till 3 am to deliberate on issues raised by the Students’ Council.

In my initial days, I came to realise that there was nothing peculiar about the students who joined these Left groups: they came from all regions and all class backgrounds; they had all sorts of motives for becoming members (a majority of the smartest girls on campus were members of the SFI); they differed greatly in their commitment to the cause that their organisation stood for.

Like most freshers, I too was assiduously wooed by the redoubtable Dilip Upadhyay, then the most popular SFI leader in the School of Social Sciences. He set up several meetings with Yechury, the top leader on the campus. But given my bitter experience with Left groups back home, I chose to bide time.

When the Students’ Union elections came, I was witness to the full flow of JNU democracy. Election commissioners were elected from among the students, with absolutely no role of any teacher or administrator in the process. Post-dinner election meetings were the biggest draw. Yechury was the presidential candidate again, but the star attraction was DP Tripathi, who was president of the JNUSU during the Emergency and who had spent 19 months in jail. Yechury was rather sedate, matter-of-fact and logical in his speeches; But DPT (as Tripathi was popularly known) kept the audience spellbound with his rhetoric for endless hours (I remember returning to my room from one such meeting at 5 am after being glued to a three- hour-long harangue by him). Decidedly, DPT was the most powerful defender of Stalinism on a JNU platform.

There was no comparable figure in the Free Thinkers, a campus-based organisation, which was the voice of liberal scepticism. Anand Kumar, who was president of the BHU Students’ union on a Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha ticket, was instrumental in the formation of the Free Thinkers in JNU in 1972 to take on the might of the established Left. He was defeated by the formidable Prakash Karat of the SFI in the 1973 election, but he had his revenge next year when both contested election again and Kumar trounced Karat. But midway in his tenure as president of the JNUSU, Kumar went abroad for higher studies on a fellowship; that left Free Thinkers in a disarray for quite some time and the established Left groups bounced back.

The situation changed dramatically in 1980 when Jairus Banaji, who had registered for an MPhil in History with Bipan Chandra as his guide, appeared on the political scene. He, a Trotskyite, and a handful of like-minded students formed Students for Revolutionary Socialism and launched a virulent attack on the Stalinist Left. His forceful thesis and acidic comments made SFI and DPT run for cover. He once decided to beard the lion in his den; he went to an SFI meeting, armed with loads of books, and recited a litany of damning details on Stalinist crimes. DPT tried to bravely respond saying that in any revolutionary movement ‘mistakes’ were bound to happen; the next night, we were treated to Jairus holding forth on a two-hour electrifying diatribe against ‘the “‘Mistake’ Theorists of Stalinist History”.

Every 24 hours then seemed to send the pulse of the campus racing to a revolutionary precipice. One had to live through that phase in JNU history to understand its hold on a young mind. But that era soon passed, with Jairus leaving the campus. The SFI was back calling the shots in political debates.

There was no denying that I and some of my close friends were greatly impressed by the SFI and AISF as political and cultural organisations; aspects of feminism, ethnic nationalism and aesthetics flavoured their activism. Their revolutionary songs stirred us; the cultural power of the Left movement was immense.

There was no doubt in our mind that socialism had to be the call of the day. But we had a problem with the socialism of the SFI. We were not convinced about their quixotic mission of effecting an Indian revolution through Bolshevik means. We increasingly came to realise that they did not represent Indian radicalism; they had become an Indian appendage of a Russian revolutionary power. Che Guevera was not as big a revolutionary icon for them as Ho Chi Minh because Che had the gumption to make a strident critique of both Leninist and Stalinist policies. Submission to the USSR was an affront to the honest dreams of communists everywhere, he had said.

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